One Task Every Photographer Should Perform to Start the Year

One Task Every Photographer Should Perform to Start the Year

Today, I’ll share a brief story about one of my annual photographic rituals that is crucial to every artist's development.

It’s been a strange start to the new year. Generally speaking, I love New Year’s Day. No matter what kinds of madness transpired the year before, for some reason, I find the simple changing of the clock at midnight between the 31st of December and the 1st of January seems to hold some sort of magical power, like a life reset button that suddenly fills me with energy and makes me feel brand new again. I usually come rushing out of gates to start the new year, full of ideas and endless energy, trying to accomplish all of my New Year’s resolutions and yearly goals by January 2nd. But this year has been different.

There are a couple practical reasons for that. For one, it was one of those rare years where both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were on a weekend. I’m a 24/7 365 days of the year kind of guy. So, I’m used to working weekends. But something about the idea of January 1st falling on a Sunday seemed to knock some of the motivation out of it. Worse yet, the following Monday would be the official holiday, meaning clients wouldn’t be in the office and outreach would have to be put off yet another day, giving me every excuse to indulge in even more couch time.

Then the rains came. If you live anywhere else in the world, you will likely find the next sentence comical. But, if you live in Los Angeles, where it rains so infrequently as to compel musicians to write a song about it, you’ll know that a bit of rain tends to put a damper on things around here. Life goes on, but in a somewhat muted state, as Angeleno’s await the return of our chronic sunshine. Usually, it rains here for a day or two. But, for some reason, the gods seem fit to end our drought in one swoop by having it rain the last two weeks nonstop.

Sitting in the office, watching the rain fall against the window, is where I found myself when I sat down to do one of my annual January rituals yesterday. As artists, our skills develop over time. At least, they should if one is continually pushing oneself to get better. And, if one isn’t constantly trying to get better, what really is the point of a career in the arts at all? Inevitably, as your skills improve and your artistic voice sharpens, those facets of your business/creativity that may have previously represented the pinnacle of your abilities will eventually start to fail to capture the current moment.

One thing I’ve done while waiting for the rain to curtail is to finally get around to rearranging the furniture in my house. Something that has been desperately in need of doing since the pandemic. As any home renovator knows, your couch always looked perfectly fine until you got the new table. Now, all of the sudden, something that was working perfectly for you before suddenly feels out of step with the rest of the room.

A similar thing happens as our photography develops. Images that were once the centerpiece of our portfolio may now seem like relics of a past era. They don’t suddenly become bad images overnight. It’s just that when placed alongside all the new work you’ve been producing in the last year, those previous home run images are starting to look more like base hits. Less because of a lack of skills on display. More because you’ve grown as an artist and a human being. And, appropriately, so has your voice. You’re a different person than when you took those earlier images. So, it’s not unfathomable that some of those older images might not grow with you.

That’s why every January, I go through the process of taking an absolute hatchet to my portfolio. Okay, “hatchet” might be a strong term. But you get the picture. Over the course of the next 12 months, I will hopefully get a chance to produce even more work that I personally find exemplary enough to make it into my portfolio. And there’s always more work in the archive threatening to get back in. But to start the year, in this very first revision, my focus is on cutting away. Like a gourmet chef trimming the fat from the edges of a fine steak, I go through every portfolio and sub-portfolio on my website and other marketing material and ask a simple question. Does this image still represent who I am as an artist?

Clearly, you are still capable of producing the work you did in your older images. It’s not like you’ve forgotten how it’s done. But, does that aging image still represent the type of artist you want to be and the type of work you want to attract? It doesn’t even have to be an old image either. This year, I excised an entire project from my marketing materials that I had only shot a couple months earlier. The project was good too (in my own opinion). But, of course, when it comes to putting your best foot forward, it means just that. Put your best foot forward. And only your best foot. So, the project, while it did do a decent job of reflecting my current aesthetic, had to be sacrificed for the overall presentation I was hoping to project.

The longer you’ve been creating, the harder this process gets. The images you’ll be cutting out will likely be some of your all-time favorites. Many of them may have held important spots in your portfolio for several years and to be without them in a client meeting just feels funny. But, being an artist is about constant growth. And, like many other Earth-bound creatures, growth often entails moments when we must shed our former skin in order to inhabit our new selves. The old skin constrains us. You have to leave it behind in order to grow.

So, before the rain breaks and your year gets fully into swing, take a moment to reflect on the face you are showing the world. Are there any facets of your portfolio whose race has been run? Does every image in your book accurately reflect who you are and the type of work you want to do (not just the type of work you have been doing)? If not, take a moment to trim the fat. It’s time to move ahead.

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6 Comments
S M's picture

I feel your sentiment about both the furniture, portfolio and especially the rain.

I'm up here in the Bay Area (having moved up from LA) going on 3 years. This is the wettest I remember it being for such a consistent period of time, I have clients banging down my door waiting for the weather gods to shine a light upon their projects. Wish I could control it, and wish it didn't drive me in circles while I organize, declutter and RE-organize all over again...

I've taken the time though to decide what my top 25 images or all time are. This has been such a tall task as I want to just move on from some images for new, but I know that some of the older ones were the reason I won contracts in the past. However, my vision as a creative has changed and the kind of clients I want to pursue have also fallen into other fields, so having a well rounded portfolio that shows what I am in pursuit of is really important.

Great article

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks for reading. Yes, it's a constant challenge to balance maintaining current clients with the type of work your creativity is moving you towards. It's all part of the process.

Tom Reichner's picture

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Christopher Malcolm wrote:

"Images that were once the centerpiece of our portfolio may now seem like relics of a past era. They don’t suddenly become bad images overnight. It’s just that when placed alongside all the new work you’ve been producing in the last year, those previous home run images are starting to look more like base hits. Less because of a lack of skills on display. More because you’ve grown as an artist and a human being. And, appropriately, so has your voice. You’re a different person than when you took those earlier images."

This is true to some extent, but there is another factor at work, and that is recency bias.

Humans tend to over-value the most recent good things, relative to the older good things. This is because excitement and exhilaration tend to play too large of a factor in what we like at any given time.

We are more excited and enthusiastic about the things we are involved in NOW, compared to the things that are over and done with. So instead of ranking our images on artistic merit alone, we also factor in (subconsciously) how excited we are about them. And that entirely subjective emotional response will unfairly favor newer work over older work. In other words, we partly go by our feelings instead of going strictly by the aesthetic principles of art.

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Jan Steinman's picture

I was about to say that, but you said it much more eloquently than I would have!

When I look at my old photos, I temper "recency bias" (I like that phrase!) by pretending I'm someone else. Perhaps the spirit of my late Mom is looking at the photos, or one of my photo students, or perhaps GuruShots voters.

At that point, I generally decide that even though I'm still learning and growing, I really wasn't <i>that bad</i> in the past.

Greg Edwards's picture

One thing I do at the end of the year is clear out my meagre Adobe CC 20gb allowance. I'm very much an amateur and I take mixture of camera photos and iPhone photos that all end up in Lightroom Classic, often via LR on my phone or iPad. As such, the quiet period at the end of the year is a good opportunity to make sure all originals are sync'd properly to my macbook, then removed from the cloud and replaced by smart previews.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Good process